An academic’s notes, alternately gloomy and optimistic, on a troubled republic.
Continuing the survey of contemporary American politics that he began with The State of the Nation (1996), Harvard President Emeritus Bok looks closely at an apparent conundrum: Americans trumpet the superiority of their system of government, while at the same time holding an ever-sinking estimation of the work of their public officials. Such distrust of government is nothing new, he allows; it was a common trope in the days of Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. What is different, he suggests, is that today, for the first time in history, American citizens demand services—police protection, health care, subsidies of various kinds—from a government in which they have no faith, a situation that is a cynic’s delight. The author argues that, in many respects, government is better than it has ever been in delivering such services, and that Americans today enjoy more personal freedom, a higher standard of living, and an ever-escalating quality of life. This is not to say that we have nothing to complain about, but rather that the basis of our complaining is often groundless and reactionary. American politicians have harmed themselves and their constituents by giving that culture of complaint too much heed, Bok suggests, and have given far too much credence to the opinion of a public that has taken no trouble to do any homework. An obvious answer, of course, is to demand more involvement of informed citizens in government, and this Bok calls for at several points. Less rhetorically, he offers thoughts on reforming the electoral process, lessening the influence of lobbying organizations and special-interest groups, and other matters of concern.
Bok raises many thoughtful questions in this timely extended civics lesson, even if his solutions are sometimes half-baked.